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What you can do when your boss is going through a personal crisis

Being at work when your boss is going through a personal crisis can feel awkward–but as an employee, there are steps you can take to make it easier for them.

What you can do when your boss is going through a personal crisis
[Photo: Tom Percy/twpinc.com/Flickr]

Balancing work with a personal crisis is a challenge for anybody. In most instances, they tend to come out of the blue, when you least expect it, and definitely when you don’t have time or bandwidth to deal with it.

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But what happens you’re an employee, and you discover that your boss is going through a tough time? How do you support them emotionally in a way that doesn’t cross professional boundaries?  Erica Keswin, author of Bring Your Human to Work: 10 Surefire Ways to Design a Workplace That Is Good for People, Great for Business, and Just Might Change The World shares some steps you can take to be the most helpful employee you can be when your manager is facing personal adversity.

Acknowledge their loss

Whether it’s your boss, coworker, or direct report, it’s always tricky to know the right thing to say when you discover that they’re going through a tough time in their personal life. But as Dennis Potter, manager of consultant relations and training at Crisis Care Network, previously told Fast Company, there are no magic words in this situation–but saying nothing nothing is worse than acknowledging the situation. Potter emphasizes that you don’t need to get into the details, but “You start by just acknowledging the loss. ‘I am so sorry this has happened to you. I’m so sorry this has happened to your child or to your loved one,’ or whatever the thing is, and make it specific.”

Set expectations

In the ideal world, you would already have a plan in place to deal with unexpected crisis–personal and professional. But often life circumstances occur out of the blue, and this might mean that your boss needs to take a sudden leave of absence in the middle of an important project.

Different situations require different treatments, so make sure you ask your boss how they’d like to be contacted as they deal with their circumstances. Define what methods of communication they prefer, how often (and when) they expect contact, and whether you need a special procedure when it comes to bringing up anything mission-critical for the company (for example, a special ring tone), Keswin says. The boss will probably crave “some sort of structure that when he or she is dealing with an issue, they can actually disconnect–even if that disconnection is 30 or 60 minutes. It doesn’t need to be for a week.”

Keswin tells Fast Company, “When a person is going through that crisis, the boss is thinking, I need to make sure work gets done, I need to make sure my client is happy, yet I don’t want to have to be on 24/7 because that’s what [makes me] stressed.” 

Designate a point person

It’s generally good practice to check in with your boss (and your team members) on a regular basis to ensure that you know what your team is working on–even when there isn’t a personal crisis. However, if your team hasn’t been doing this, now would be the time to get everyone together and make sure that you’re all on the same page with workload and goals. Ideally, Keswin says, employees should go around and ask each other about the tasks and projects that they’re working on, and do a status update. “The more we can be open, when the right hand knows what the left hand is doing, and we’re more integrated as a team, the client will have better results.”

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Keswin also noted that if your boss needs to be away from the office,  it’s important to have a point person to coordinate things in your boss’s absence, if there isn’t an existing no. 2 in place already. After all, by doing everything in your power to keep things running smoothly, you’re supporting your boss by making their return to work easier.

Don’t let your responsibilities slide

Finally, Keswin says that the worst thing you can do is to let things slip and settle for a mediocre performance. That’s just going to make things harder for your boss when he or she returns. In addition, when it comes to dealing with clients or externals, make sure that you follow the practices that your boss has set, and avoid introducing any new practices while your boss is away. The last thing you want to do is cross the line with a client, and leave your boss to deal with it when they return.

Keswin says it’s important to remember that your boss is human–prone to stress, frustrations and personal lives that can affect their performance at work. At its core, the key to supporting them during tough times is to honor relationships, according to Keswin. When you think about supporting your boss, also consider your interactions with the person who has stepped in, your clients, and your colleagues. Keswin tells Fast Company, “Think about it holistically,” and figure out how you can leverage technology and relationships to give your boss the space and breathing room that they might need as they deal with their personal crisis.

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About the author

Anisa is the Assistant Editor for Fast Company's Leadership section. She covers everything from personal development, entrepreneurship and the future of work

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